Bridges of Shangri-La

Leo Colvini

Publisher: Uberplay

Err, why would you stand right at the edge of a broken bridge? (photo credits: Edward Kemp@BGG)

I think Leo Colvini has a reputation for developing games that are mathematical and dry, perhaps even more so than Herr Knizia. Whether you believe this is true, Mr. Colvini does have a strong following and a few of his games, I argue, have achieved cult status. Such is the case for Bridges of Shangri-La where the perfect information game has attracted a certain group of players who love zero luck, zero sum games. Even though Mr. Colvini’s Cartagena is more universally loved, Bridges of Shangri-La is more polarizing.

Bridges of Shangri-La (BoSL) is an abstract game. No ifs and buts about it. Really, I think even the publisher admit to the abstractness of the game by giving tongue in cheek thematic descriptions in the rule booklet that border on the inane. For example, all players have specific designations in the game with the red player called Ro-Tarya, the yellow, Gyl-Den, etc. No explanations are given for these names. Moreover, icons on the tiles are silly and have very little to do with the game (Healer, Dragonbreeder, Rainmaker, etc.). Finally I love the fact that in the intro, they call the remaining wise-men: The Invisible Bridge Blaster. I guess he is teaching students how to blast bridges after each journey. I think you get the idea that the theme non-existent and nonsensical.

At the heart of BoSL is a musical chairs mechanism that I think is quite unique. It may feel like an area majority but it isn’t. Each player has 7 types of tiles with unique icons. Each village on the board also has 7 slots that match the tile icons. Tiles placed in any village must match the icons and so as the tiles migrate from village to village, their location in the village is fixed. On any given turn, players can do one of three actions: place one tile on an empty spot on any village where you already have a presence. This tile that touches the board is called a “master” tile. The second action is to place a student tile on any master tiles of your color in any village. You can place up to two students on two different master tiles but each master can have only a student. Finally, the meat of the game is in the 3rd action: moving your students from one village to the next. When you move your student(s) in a village, all other students in that village, regardless of player color also moves. Since there are 7 types of tiles, if each master has a student, then all 7 students will move to the next village. The master never moves and if the origin village has more tiles than the destination village, then it is considered stronger and the new arrivals will supplant the preexisting tiles in the destination village. Otherwise If students move from weaker to stronger villages, only empty slots with no master tile will be filled. Each village has 3-4 bridges that connects to it. Once a student journeys from one village to the next, the bridge between the villages is removed to prevent further movement. If all links to a particular village is removed, then the scoring for that village is locked in as no more journeys in or out of the village is permitted. To win the game, one needs to have the most tiles on the game board when 11 of the 12 villages are locked out. In other words, you want to have as many master tiles on the game board when all of the bridges connected to 11 villages are destroyed.

The rules to BoSL is dirt simple: You either place new master tiles to villages, add student tiles to existing master tiles or move student tiles to propagate your pieces. However, the game shines because of the interaction between players and there are emergent patterns that won’t be visible in the rule book until you play the game. This is what makes the game interactive and also brain burning. Allow me to pen a few observation after two plays:

  • The game rewards players who are able to piggy back their student tiles when someone else triggers a journey between villages. Since all student tiles migrate in a journey, it is important to observe what other players are doing if you anticipate they are preparing for a journey. If you already have presence in that village, it be useful to add student tiles then.
  • Journeys are most useful from strong to weak villages as your students can take over the slots. However, there are times when strategically, you can preempt a move by making a journey from a weak to strong village. This destroys and remove the bridge and prevents a repeat journey in the opposite direction. When used correctly, you can force the strong village to journey in a different direction.
  • The game is a bit like playing chicken. If you wait too long to make a move the bridges can be abruptly removed leaving your “army” of students stranded in a village.
  • Adding master tiles seem a waste of action, but is one of the few ways to expand your base of influence in a village.
  • The threat of a journey is sometimes more powerful than the journey itself. If you have a lot of students in a village, it can affect how other pieces are placed in the surrounding villages.

I like Bridges of Shangri-La and agree it is underrated. There is a lot of subtlety in the game that doesn’t emerge until you start observing what actions other players are performing which will give you some hints for their subsequent moves. I am still just scratching the surface. However, there is a rub: The game feels very rich, very deep with multiple layers to consider in order to play well but I cannot be sure. Even after 2 games, I can see some patterns emerging but yet, I cannot wrap my head around a coherent strategy, and that worries me a little. Some games feel deep and gives the illusion of control but is extremely tactical. BoSL feels like that. I know it’s a good game, but I just don’t know how much control I have to win. For every action I take to position myself, it can be easily disrupted by other players in a single move. Each turn is fluid and positions shift back and forth as tiles are propagated in different directions. For example, while you can plan to defend your position in one village, there is no guarantee that the village even needs defending if the strong neighboring village takes a different direction. The early game is tougher to predict, but as the available villages start to dwindle, it is easier to anticipate actions.

I want to give BoSL the highest grade, but right now, not being able to fully grok a winning strategy is a bit disconcerting for me. I just want to know that the game allows players to formulate a coherent winning strategy. It doesn’t help that in our latest game, the winner professed to have “no idea” how the game was won. Perhaps it’s beginners luck, or it might be saying something about the design and game play which is extremely tactical and chaotic. BoSL has all the hallmarks of a good game which I love, but I am struggling to understand the game. I do not play enough abstract games and I wonder if this is to be expected for an abstract design. It is clear that further plays are required before I render my final words.

Initial impressions: Good (For now!)

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